04/09/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Back from Kentucky

"You guys are amazing!!!"

After 5 hours of training, the smells of roasted chicken filling the room, and 30 Save the Children educators debriefing their experiences over the last few months, I had to stop and yell out loud. This team is truly amazing.

That was my primary thought at the end of two days of the Wellness in the Schools (WITS) school lunch training and cooking classes in Whitesburg, KY. They get it. And they want it. Change is hard, and I admit that there were moments when I thought that the challenges of changing eating habits in rural communities were too difficult. But I was dead wrong. (Yeah!).

In my previous post, I wrote about how WITS was partnering with Save the Children to work in Eastern Kentucky, an area struggling with high obesity among its children. We were there to train the Save the Children educators on our WITS Labs, which they would teach in schools to their children. We taught them how to make a variety of simple, healthy recipes from scratch, including vegetarian chili with rice and roasted potatoes as an alternative to canned chili & French fries. Also I was there to show school food employees how they can bring real food into the cafeterias.

They really are into it. During my demo on Day 1, as I asked for volunteers to help, they all wanted to come up and work alongside me while I was prepping the chili, rice & salad bar. Especially the kids. For much of the prep I had at least four kids cutting and stirring with me. They really wanted to learn about how to eat better. It was great to have them there. Kids are the reason I got involved. I wanted them to know that cooking can be easy and by teaching them to cook I am teaching them to take care of themselves, and helping to reduce their dependence on processed foods.

I have seen kids get excited about food before, in our classes in the New York City public schools, and seen how powerfully a basic cooking class can affect their attitudes toward healthier eating, but I was really surprised that we got that same level of energy from the adults in our Labs. These people care deeply about kids and about their health. They had seen many people close to them suffer from obesity-related illnesses and even deaths and they want to reverse the trend. One teacher told me that in her class of 30 7-year-old kids, every single one knew someone who had had a heart attack. 7-year olds!!! One woman told us that she had lost 27 pounds since we were last in Kentucky (just one month ago!) and said that it was our work that had inspired her to change her eating and cooking habits. A 30-year old participant with high cholesterol thanked us for introducing him to foods he never would have tried before, and for showing him how easy it was to make healthy ingredients taste good.

Jeff Ciabotti, National Director of Programs, Partnerships and Health for Save the Children commented in a more philosophical tone, "Whether kids or adults, in New York City or Kentucky, food transcends. It has been incredible to teach children and adults how to cook and be healthy. Food crosses culture and social-economic lines. This is going to work."

I couldn't agree more. Cooking is transformative and small changes make such a big difference in communities like the ones we have visited in Kentucky. Let's keep taking these small steps forward. Real food can change lives in very real ways.

Happy cooking,
Bill Telepan

Vegetarian Chili (Serves 10)

6 cups canned black, kidney or cannellini beans, rinsed & drained
3 Tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 red peppers, diced
2 small onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded, de-ribbed & minced (optional)
2 Tablespoons ground chili powder
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice, chopped
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped (for garnish - optional)
Scallions, thinly sliced (for garnish - optional)
Sour cream (for garnish - optional)

Rinse and drain beans and set aside.
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat until warm. Add onion, red pepper, garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, until onions are translucent. Stir in spices and cook 1 minute. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, water, salt and drained and rinsed beans; reduce heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until flavors are well combined.
Garnish with cilantro, scallions and sour cream just before serving.

Yellow Rice (Serves 10)

¼ cup olive or canola oil
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 ½ teaspoons turmeric
1 1/2 cups brown rice, rinsed
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups water
1/2 cup peas, frozen or cooked fresh, rinsed
1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced

In a large pot over medium heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add garlic, onions, celery, peppers and scallions and cook, stirring, until softened. Add turmeric and rice, stirring until well combined.
Add salt and water. Bring to a boil and cover tightly. Reduce heat to low and cook 30-40 minutes, until water is absorbed and rice is tender. Fluff rice with a fork; with a spoon, gently fold in peas, parsley and cilantro. Do not overmix.